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NFL’s Workout Request Puts Colin Kaepernick Between a Rock and a Hard Place

In the nearly three years since Kaepernick last took a snap in the NFL, the QB has made it clear that he wants to play. But the league’s request for a private workout is not as straightforward as it seems.
Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick cares deeply about social-justice causes and also desperately wants to play in the NFL. But America has had a hard time believing both. If he wanted to play, critics say, he wouldn’t have kneeled.

Kaepernick has evolved in many ways in the last decade, but put a ball in his hands, and he is still the player who set goals to win the Super Bowl and become an all-time great in his rookie season. He never gave up that dream, even when it seemed clear that the NFL didn’t want him. He has said it publicly on occasion and privately to anybody who will listen: He wants to play. Even though Kaepernick hasn’t taken a snap since the 2016 season, he never fell out of shape.

When Kaepernick shows up in Atlanta for his workout and interview Saturday, NFL scouts and executives will see both sides of him: The quarterback who desperately wants to play, and the man who stands by his beliefs. And Kaepernick will see both sides of the NFL teams, too. He will see the football grinders who desperately want to improve their team, and the men who have not had the guts to give him a real chance.

I know Kaepernick is smart, and he surely knows he has to jump at this opportunity. As a man who has been blackballed by the league, he also knows it might be a mirage, a show, a faux chance.

Consider his tweet Tuesday:

You can read that and see a football player who wants a chance to play. And that’s fair and accurate. But read closer:

I’m just getting word …

Four days before the workout, almost three years after his last game, the NFL calls his agents and says, Hey, we were just thinking, what the heck, let’s do this! Contrast this with what guys do before the NFL draft, before they work for any team: Players take part in specific, immense training tailored for the NFL combine and their pro days. At the combine players pick and choose which drills they do, if they do any at all. At their pro days, they plan the schedule to make the player look as good as possible—choosing the routes, the receivers, the field, the time of day, everything. The NFL is putting Kaepernick in a very different situation, and if you think he didn’t notice…

I’ve been in shape and ready for this for 3 years …

Yes, this is another way to tell the world how badly he wants to play. It is also a subtle way of calling out the NFL for scheduling a workout, after three years, on just four days notice …

can’t wait to see the head coaches and GMs on Saturday

I hope he was laughing when he wrote that, because I’m sure he realizes what is happening. The key words there are “head coaches.” A few GMs may show up, but how many head coaches are going to fly to Atlanta on a Saturday in the middle of the NFL season to watch Kaepernick work out? Twenty-four teams play the next day, but not one of them plays in Atlanta.

Kaepernick can be socially unaware in some ways. I don’t think he had any clue, when he first kneeled, that taking such a public stance would blow up the way it did. But he spent six years in the NFL. He has a lot of friends who are still in the league. He knows how the league works. He knows he will not be greeted by a bunch of head coaches eager to sign him.

And Kaepernick knows he can’t call the workout a sham, either. This is what he wanted, right? He has said it publicly on occasion and privately to anybody who will listen: He wants to play.

What can he do now? If he complains about the day of the week, he will just be branded a complainer. If he points out that teams only sign quarterbacks at this time out of year out of desperation, he will be called a diva. If he talks about all the lesser quarterbacks who have started a game in his absence—just last year, the list included Nathan Peterman, Cody Kessler, Mark Sanchez and Taylor Heinicke—people will say he is being difficult.

This has been true of Kaepernick since he was a kid: Once you lose his trust, you have to work three times as hard to gain it back. I highly doubt the NFL will regain his trust this week. The NFL just controls what Kaepernick desperately wants: a job in the NFL.

He will probably continue his social-justice work for the rest of his life. In the meantime, if this workout actually happens, and if somebody actually signs him, then his new head coach will discover what Chip Kelly and Jim Harbaugh and pretty much every coach Kaepernick ever had will say: He is easy to coach. He has a great work ethic. He listens. He does not put himself above the team. And he really, truly loves playing football.

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